Monday, March 28, 2016

Maria Gillan Goes Back to School 18

Photo by Amy Newman via

Maria Mazziotti Gillan returned to School 18 in Paterson where she had gone as a young girl and met with students from the school's poetry club recently.

As covered in "Gillan Poet's return to her Paterson school inspires heartfelt writing" she shared her memories of growing up a short, skinny, shy, poor immigrant kid on 17th Street in the 1950s.

Maria read her own emotional poems and students read their own poems aloud, some of them tearing up at times. “It means what you had to write is important,” Gillan told them.

“Who would want to listen to a poor immigrant?” she told the students. She was very shy and “didn't speak up until I was 40,” she said.

She told the students that her teachers at School 18 left their marks - some for the better, some not. One teacher showed she cared with a simple touch. “I always felt like I grew 10 feet when she touched my shoulder. And that's what a teacher can do for you.”

“Don't let anyone tell you you're limited by where you grew up,” she said.

PS 18
Public School #18: Paterson, New Jersey
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Miss Wilson’s eyes, opaque
as blue glass, fix on me:
"We must speak English.
We’re in America now."
I want to say, "I am American,"
but the evidence is stacked against me.

My mother scrubs my scalp raw, wraps
my shining hair in white rags
to make it curl. Miss Wilson
drags me to the window, checks my hair
for lice. My face wants to hide.

At home, my words smooth in my mouth,
I chatter and am proud. In school,
I am silent, grope for the right English
words, fear the Italian word
will sprout from my mouth like a rose,

fear the progression of teachers
in their sprigged dresses,
their Anglo-Saxon faces.

Without words, they tell me
to be ashamed.
I am.
I deny that booted country
even from myself,
want to be still
and untouchable
as these women
who teach me to hate myself.

Years later, in a white
Kansas City house,
the Psychology professor tells me
I remind him of the Mafia leader
on the cover of Time magazine.

My anger spits
venomous from my mouth:

I am proud of my mother,
dressed all in black,
proud of my father
with his broken tongue,
proud of the laughter
and noise of our house.

Remember me, Ladies,
the silent one?
I have found my voice
and my rage will blow
your house down.

from  What We Pass On: Collected Poems: 1980-2009

Maria's Official Site is at  Her latest publication is the poetry and art collection, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets.

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